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City attorney with right-wing agenda fights for survival in Huntington Beach

After being elected Huntington Beach City Attorney in 2014, Michael Gates went to war.

He started a nudist group that rented a pool and gym in town.

In the name of local control, he fought state officials over zoning laws and immigration.

At first, his right-wing militancy was relatively popular. But as more Democrats won elections in a city still notorious for its conservatism, he became increasingly isolated.

Now majority-Democratic, the City Council discussed hiring outside law firms to vet Gates’ office. A related measure is on the November 8 ballot.

And the muscular former high school wrestler is running for re-election against a former employee who won a $2.5 million age discrimination settlement against the city.

“I’m offering a different take on what the city attorney’s office can be,” said Gates opponent Scott Field, a Democrat and former assistant city attorney. “Fighting losing battles is not a good strategy. You have to be selective. »

Gates, 47, was politically aligned with Tito Ortiz, who ascended to the Huntington Beach City Council in 2020 as a former UFC champion and die-hard Trump supporter.

At the height of the pandemic, Ortiz flouted mask rules, appearing bare-faced at council meetings.

While that wowed crowds who gathered on the Huntington Beach pier to protest pandemic rules, Ortiz quit after six months, citing personal attacks and relentless negative press.

To replace him, the council nominated Rhonda Bolton, Huntington Beach’s first black council member, creating a Democratic majority for the first time in recent memory.

After that, the board began discussing hiring outside law firms, who would report directly to them.

“I’m definitely a target, and there’s a partisan case against me,” said Gates, a longtime Republican.

Republicans maintain a 9% voter registration advantage over Democrats in Huntington Beach, with 22% indicating no party preference. The coastal city of nearly 200,000 is overwhelmingly white, but 19% Latinos and 13% Asians are significant minorities.

Dan Kalmick, a Democrat elected in 2020 to City Council with Ortiz and another Democrat, Natalie Moser, said the problem was not ideology but staying on the right side of the law.

“We don’t live in the Republic of Huntington Beach,” he said. “We have to follow state rules.”

In most cities in California, the city attorney is appointed by the council.

While their ethical obligation to obey the law may sometimes put them at odds with council members, appointed municipal prosecutors are unlikely to adopt an agenda fundamentally opposed to council’s goals.

Huntington Beach is the only city in Orange County and one of 11 cities in the state — including major cities like Los Angeles and San Francisco — with an elected city attorney.

“There’s more accountability, in theory, to voters since to keep office, the city attorney has to run for re-election,” said Cal State Fullerton political science professor Pamela Fiber-Ostrow. “[But] most voters are unaware of the position, what it requires and what the standards of the office are.

In his early days as city attorney, when Gates was still in tune with the city council, one of his biggest battles involved a council decision to defy a state-approved housing development plan. affordable.

The Kennedy Commission, an Orange County affordable housing nonprofit, filed a lawsuit.

Gates argued that Huntington Beach had broad control over zoning. An appeals court agreed. In response, Governor Gavin Newsom signed legislation that required charter towns like Huntington Beach to comply with state housing laws.

Last year, a judge awarded the Kennedy Commission $3.5 million in attorney fees.

Gates remains defiant, saying his office will win the appeal.

Gates also pushed back on immigration, suing the state because he didn’t want to comply with the so-called sanctuary state law, which restricted police cooperation with federal immigration authorities.

Residents and activists flooded city council meetings to speak out in favor of the lawsuit.

“Honestly, this was local control,” Gates said. “If we don’t fight, the state will end up controlling everything – every issue, every aspect of local governance. What will local town halls do?

An Orange County Superior Court judge sided with Gates before an appeals court overturned the ruling, saying state law ‘does not unnecessarily impinge on interests municipal”.

“He’s trying to frame these issues as just a political fight over control of the charter,” Kalmick said of Gates. “What are the issues he wants to keep control over? These are right-wing issues that are not in the California mainstream.

Gates moved to Huntington Beach from Cincinnati as a young boy after his father took a job in the defense industry.

His family attended Mass every Sunday and worshiped President Ronald Reagan. Republican Representative Dana Rohrabacher has become a household name.

Gates excelled at football and wrestling at Marina High School. As a law student at Chapman University, he joined the Federalist Society, a conservative legal group.

He became a partner at a Santa Ana law firm before beating out a 12-year-old incumbent for the Huntington Beach town attorney job.

Scott Field, a former assistant city attorney from Huntington Beach, is running against city attorney Michael Gates in November. Field previously worked under Gates but sued, alleging age discrimination. The lawsuit was settled for $2.5 million.

(Kevin Chang / Daily Driver)

Field, Gates’ opponent, earned a law degree from UCLA and moved to Huntington Beach in 1989 with his wife and two children.

He served as the city attorney for Temecula and Mission Viejo before becoming an assistant city attorney for Huntington Beach in 1995. It was a “dream job,” he said — until the finish by Gates.

In the age discrimination lawsuit, Field, 66, alleged Gates created a hostile workplace where older or disabled lawyers were kicked out or replaced in favor of younger hires. After being promoted to assistant city attorney in 1999, Field was demoted twice under Gates.

Field, who retired after the lawsuit was settled, alleged Gates berated him for taking time off to treat his cataracts.

According to Gates, the previous City Council deemed the lawsuit frivolous, while Democrats elected in 2020 pushed to settle it quickly.

The council then ordered an audit of how the city attorney’s office and an outside law firm handled the case.

The 69-page audit found Gates was “too aggressive” in asserting his office’s authority, but concluded Gates had broken no laws.

Field said the findings of the audit prompted him to run for city attorney.

“I worked in this office for almost 25 years under two former city attorneys,” he said. “No one has ever questioned the principle that the solicitor has a fiduciary relationship with the city council because he is the client.”

Gates raised more than $100,000 for his reelection, compared to $37,500 for Field.

Four city council seats are up for grabs in next month’s election, meaning the balance of power is at stake.

Gates is campaigning with a slate of four council candidates who, like him, are endorsed by the Orange County Republican Party.

All appeared at a “victory rally” this week at the pier, pledging to save Huntington Beach from the “destruction” of Sacramento.

A large banner displayed a “contract” with Huntington Beach voters that was signed by all four council candidates, who pledged to give Gates the power to fight state mandates on day one.

Gates also headlined a private event Monday at Basilico’s Pasta e Vino, an Italian restaurant that gained notoriety by refusing to serve masked customers during the pandemic.

“I will continue to fight for the city regardless of our leadership,” Gates said. “Whether it’s on the wrestling mat or in court, that’s what I do, that’s what I fight.”

Los Angeles Times

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